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Jake Killen was happy to be back in New York. Not many farm boys from the middle of Canada could be heard saying that, but he loved the buzz he got being around the city. He liked the action and enjoyed the busy life he lived when he was there during the season. He loved the beaches to the east, the mountains to his north, and Jake liked the people.
Yeah, he especially liked the people. They were straightforward, funny, and once they got to know someone, very loyal. He’d missed being here and there were a lot of reasons for that. One in particular was a green-eyed girl who had changed his life. One whom he’d loved. But, ten years ago he’d broken her heart, as well as his own in the process.
Funny things those broken hearts… they never let him forget a damn thing.
Jake walked into the practice rink and drew in a deep breath. He could smell the ice. Cool, crisp, clean. And just like when he was a kid again, the smell offered him comfort. This was always where he came when he needed to think, when he needed to decompress. The ice never judged, never picked on him, and never expected more than he could give.
Making his way toward the familiar sounds of the rink, Jake was more than ready to finish the rehab on his shoulder. He’d taken a wicked hit during the pre-season and had been on the sidelines since, rehabbing at a specialized clinic in Canada, but now, with the worst of his recovery behind him, Jake could be back playing in less than a month.
The best news was he was cleared to skate. He may not have had all his strength back, but he was allowed to condition. He didn’t want to tell the doctor he also needed it for his sanity. He’d been going a little crazy not being able to get on the ice. It had been that way for as long as he could remember.
When he was a kid, skating was sometimes his only release. Long days in school when he was picked on for being short or skinny, when he didn’t get that math problem, or he couldn’t pay attention during reading, sent him out to the frozen pond behind his parent’s farmhouse where he skated in circles. He’d skate until his legs burned and the cold air stung his lungs. He blew off steam, did his best thinking and most of all, he dreamed. Jake Killen dreamed of being the biggest kid out there, the fastest. He dreamed of being a hockey star.
And now he was—an aging hockey star, but still mixing it up. He was thirty-five, and he brought his “A” game every night. As soon as he couldn’t do that, he’d pack it in, but walking into the rink made him smile. The place was a hive of activity because there was a youth clinic going on that day. It was exactly what he needed. The kids were off from school because of Thanksgiving and a day playing hockey could never be considered a bad one. At least they weren’t being dragged around to the Black Friday sales. He wondered what kind of crazy person shopped on a day like today?
It didn’t matter. The kids were here and anytime he was able to work with a group of developing players was a good day. Jake was one of those guys who always wanted a family. He wanted the wife and children, but here he was in his mid-thirties, still single, still without kids, and he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he’d missed his chance.
“Jake!” Looking to his left, Jake saw his old coach, George Lamiroult approaching. This was a blast from the past. George was the assistant coach of the Mariners hockey team when Jake arrived in New York twelve years ago. He made sure a homesick kid from a little town near Winnipeg didn’t get swallowed by the big city, and the two had made sure to stay in touch over the years.
Now retired from full time coaching, George ran youth hockey clinics and today’s was one of his most popular. The kids on the ice were all under twelve—Pee Wee, Squirt, and Bantam players from the tri-state area who’d shown a knack for the game and were recommended by their own coaches. Sure, they were all still learning the game, but a day with George would make them even better.
“You’re looking good,” the older man said in accented English. He hadn’t lived in Quebec for years, but the French had never left him. “How is your shoulder?”
Jake rotated it for him, grinning. “Just need to get my conditioning back. Range of motion is perfect.” George nodded and turned his head at the same time Jake saw a pint-sized streak of blue and orange go by, weaving in and out of the other players on the ice.
Damn, that kid was quick. “Jeez. Someone had their Wheaties for breakfast. Kid’s like lightning.”
“That’s Charlie,” George said. “Lots of talent.” He looked Jake up and down. “Go get some warm ups on and lace up your skates. You and that big, fat, free agent contract can help me and Gervais with some drills.
“Ryan’s here?” He hadn’t seen Ryan Gervais, other than on the ice, since Jake was sent to Toronto ten years ago. Ryan was also on his second go round with New York, being picked up in a trade right after Jake hurt himself during pre-season. Ryan was a nice guy, easy going, and a smart hockey player. When George nodded toward the far corner, he saw his old friend working with a small group on shooting, including the little rocket ship that had gone by him at warp speed a few seconds ago. The kids were shuffling their skates, tapping their sticks, and hanging onto every one of Ryan’s instructions.
George cleared his throat and nodded again toward the tunnel. “You’ve been out since before the season started, let’s see you earn some of that money.”
Grabbing his bag, Jake turned and headed for the locker room, but he looked back once more and noticed something. There was a name on the speed demon’s jersey. Gervais. That explained some of the kid’s talent. Ryan’s kid. Jake really was out of the loop though, because he had no idea Ryan Gervais was married or had a kid. But he shouldn’t be surprised. Most of the guys he knew when he broke into the league were married by now and had a couple of kids. That he was flying solo was his own damn fault. He’d walked away from the best thing that had ever happened to him and he’d wrecked someone he cared for in the process. His life was what he’d made it.
He had to stop dwelling on the past even though being back in New York meant it would kick him in the ass every now and then. Today was one of those days.
He got ready, absorbing the feel of the locker room after being away for the last two and a half months. It was surprisingly busy, considering there was no practice and it was an off day. A couple of guys were working with the trainer, and the equipment manager was prepping and organizing gear for tomorrow night’s game.
He changed and got his skates on, before finding a stick in the equipment room. Yeah, it all felt good.
Making his way to the ice, Jake welcomed the feel of his blades hitting the surface, which was a little soft for his liking, but after being abused by a couple of dozen pairs of skates all day, it was understandable. Ryan was teaching his charges how to shoot from the point, his specialty as a defenseman, and Jake couldn’t resist the opportunity to bust on him.
“You trying to teach those kids hockey with your skating skills, Gervais?”
All the helmeted heads turned and it looked like a convention of mini storm troopers from Star Wars. Jake smiled and skated over, taking off his glove and shaking Ryan’s hand. “How are you, man?”
Ryan looked the same as always, big, broad, and intimidating as hell. He was the nicest guy around, but there was no one more physical on the ice. Coming in contact with all 220 pounds of Gervais at center ice, or digging a puck out of the boards, could send a guy to the hospital.
“You are the last person I expected to see, Killen. Welcome back.”
The kids started buzzing and looking at each other. They’d caught his name. “Guys,” Ryan said. “You have one of the best centers in the game standing in front of you. You all know Jake Killen? He’s going to do some drills with us for the last half hour.”
The heads bobbed up and down and he heard the excitement in their voices. It was a buzz, no doubt about it when a kid was excited to meet him. He remembered how he felt about his favorite players. Some of the old time hockey guys weren’t always so nice, though, so meeting them was a letdown. Jake vowed that would never happen with him, always making sure a kid felt happy they’d met. He looked over at Ryan and saw the speed demon tugging on his sleeve. He bent down and from the way his friend and the boy were looking over, the conversation was about him.
A pat on the back from Gervais sent the kid, Charlie George had said, back to his group to play. Jake took over after the shooting drills and worked with the players on skating. Balance drills, sprints, and power stops had everyone huffing, puffing, and laughing.
Even Jake was huffing and puffing, a sure sign he had a lot of work to do if he was going to be playing again by the January.
Parents were filtering in, watching the end of the drills and he wondered how that would feel—watching his kid grow up, do things. Once the clinic ended, Jake signed a bunch of helmets, sticks, and jerseys, got lots of high fives and thank yous, before the group dispersed. They were nice kids, Jake wished he gotten there earlier.
Ryan skated over and little Gervais, who proved to be the best skater on the ice, was right next to him. The kid stuck close to Ryan, helmet on, and head down. Jake wondered what was up. He couldn’t imagine Ryan Gervais, the life of the locker room, having a shy kid.
“Jake, I want to introduce you to someone.” He looked down. “Charlie, take off your helmet.”
Charlie started working the straps and to Jake’s surprise, when the headgear came off, a long, braided pony tail fell out. Charlie was a girl—a badass, super-fast, hockey-playing girl.
Ryan must have seen the shock on his face because his eyes flashed right before the corner of his mouth tipped up. “This is Charlotte. My niece.”
Whoa. His niece? “Hi, Charlotte. Or did I hear you prefer Charlie?”
The kid looked up and Jake had to have stepped back. Dark brown hair, full lips and large green eyes dominated her pixie face. It hit him like a stick to the head. Charlie looked just like Sabrina. Jake nodded and smiled as best he could, having just received one of those kicks in the ass he’d been thinking about earlier. He was glad she’d found someone after he screwed up, but then he started to run numbers in his head and there was no way…
“So,” he started. Not really wanting to ask, but not being able to stop himself. He had to know. “How old are you?”
She smiled shyly and Jake’s heart lurched. “I’m nine,” she said. “I’ll be ten in May.”
It didn’t take long for Jake to do the math. Jesus, if what he thought…
“Ryan? How did it go?”
Jake’s back tensed at the voice echoing through the arena.
“Mom!” Charlie took off toward the tunnel and Jake turned to see the love of his life, the woman he never thought he’d see again, hugging her nine-year-old daughter. Bree had just turned twenty-nine. Jake’s eyes were locked on the scene and when Sabrina looked up, the happy expression dropped away and pure shock and fear washed across her face. Her reaction told him everything he needed to know.
End of Excerpt